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Developing Inquiry Questions to Engage Students

By Lawrence M. Paska — April 13, 2017 4 min read
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The definition of global competence contains four pillars—the first is “investigate the world,” or being able to ask globally significant questions. Today, Dr. Lawrence Paska, Executive Director of the National Council for the Social Studies, digs into what this means specifically to social studies.

Learning experiences that bring students to explore and inquire about the wider world around them—with emphasis on world—can seem like a daunting instructional approach. We have well-documented findings and personal teaching anecdotes to know why global education is essential in today’s schools—yet challenging to implement in a well-rounded education. From a lack of accessible instructional resources to physical distance from cultural institutions and other places, the ability to bring the world into the classroom is not something easily relegated to one subject or class period in the day.

The good news is that global learning in your instructional program is easy to foster. It starts with a question. This question may be one of the very same inquiry questions you already ask your students.

C3 Framework

Since 2013, the social studies profession has shifted its focus to the outcome of a three-year state-led collaboration, the College, Career, and Civic Life (“C3") Framework for State Social Studies Standards. The C3 Framework supports inquiry as the foundation of a high-quality social education.

“Social studies” in this context is perhaps best defined as students’ inquiry about the human-made world around them. All inquiry begins with a question. If your students ask a question about some aspect of how the human-made world works, chances are that question is relevant and applicable around the world, beyond the focal point of the students’ initial inquiry. Compelling questions are the ones our students care about—they focus on enduring issues and concerns and are asked by students in their own way every day. Such questions cannot be easily answered in “yes-no” terms, nor do they have a single interpretation; rather, they require multiple disciplines, perspectives, and sources of evidence to be understood.

We can use the C3 Framework to foster global learning in our students and in ourselves as educators by turning our inquiry questions outward and projecting them onto the world using the following four steps.

Step # 1: Develop an inquiry question.

Several inquiries developed and posted on a C3 teachers’ website ask the following questions:


  • Why should I be a global citizen? (Grade 1 inquiry from New York)
  • Is equal always fair? (Grade 6 inquiry from Georgia)
  • What made Africa, Africa? (World History and Geography I inquiry from Virginia)

Can these questions apply to our understanding of cultures and perspectives from around the world? If so, then any compelling question you use to structure a classroom inquiry may be easily positioned to a global angle for deeper connections.

For example, if you want students to compare an idea or practice across or within specific cultures, you might structure a sample question as, “Where does our food come from?” This is a powerful invitation to think about select cultures or regions that you want students to study or compare.

Step # 2: Determine which disciplines best answer this question.

Are you asking an economic question? Something rooted in history? Sociology? Anthropology? Your inquiry question is likely grounded in multiple disciplines. Which one(s) do you want to prioritize? The National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) defines social studies as “the integrated study of the social sciences and humanities to promote civic competence.” This definition gives wide latitude for educators to draw upon English Language Arts, reading, and other subjects in framing the supporting questions and strategies that answer the compelling question. We might go further and suggest that, as a key to economic decision-making, student may employ math and map skills together to chart the journey of food from farm to table.

Step # 3: Identify sources to use as evidence that answers the question.

Have students chart and list what sources they would likely use to answer the question and address the inquiry. Send them to investigate for themselves. Students do not have to work on volumes of worksheets. Instead, they can identify how to source documents—and then do the sourcing themselves. The critical aspects of this step are the abilities to gather and evaluate sources and to develop claims and use evidence. These are common literacy practices across disciplines, so this step is not an addition to solid curriculum planning and implementation. In our food example, students can draw on data about food production by regions, food supply chains around the world (and how transportation networks work), and narratives of common foods and meals across cultures and regions.

Step # 4: Determine the format you want students’ conclusions to be made in.

Do you want students to write an essay response? Create a video, podcast, or other form of media? Communicating and critiquing conclusions and taking informed action are the key aspect of this last step. Inquiry does not culminate in writing and submitting essays for a grade; instead; the inquiry process enables students to give feedback to each other, share in each other’s responses, and build meaning together. Students can create a short documentary showing the location and transportation routes of common foods in their region, or write a persuasive paper about the impact that a global transportation network has on the availability (and scarcity?) of certain foods.

Educators do not need a massive curriculum overhaul to bring global learning to life in their classrooms. It all starts with inquiry questions you may already ask in class, but pointed in the direction of the wider world.

It starts with a question: What do we want to know about the world around us?

Connect with Lawrence and the NCSS on Twitter.

Image created on Pablo.

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The opinions expressed in Global Learning are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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